From Asher to Jeremih: Selling Chart Hits on the New, Pricier iTunes

It’s now been just over a month since Apple flipped the switch at the iTunes Music Store and gave the major labels what they wanted: higher-priced hit singles. Since April 7, downloads at the world’s largest music retailer have varied in price–from 69 cents for hundreds of low-profile catalog tracks to $1.29 for best-sellers, both new and vintage. For most observers, the question has been what effect these changes would have on what remains of the music industry, and, to a lesser extent, on Apple’s bottom line. But I’m equally interested in how it might affect Billboard‘s Hot 100. You can’t figure this out by looking at the top of the chart. One song, the Black Eyed Peas’ “Boom Boom Pow,” has been No. 1 that entire time. And for reasons that remain, aesthetically, a mystery to me, it seems that people will buy it at almost any price (it was 99 cents its first week on sale, $1.29 thereafter). Nothing has threatened the Peas’ dominance, priced at 99 cents or otherwise. Instead, to really get a sense of it, you have to look at a hit that’s in the middle of the pack: big enough to matter, but modest enough to provide a useful test case. Let’s give it a shot, by comparing two tracks by new acts that were, respectively, the fastest-rising sales hits of March and May–just before and just after the switch. And while these songs emerge from different sides of the pop spectrum (quite literally), they’re both youth-oriented, seemingly viral in their chart rise, and kinda dumb. Each week on the Hot 100, Billboard rewards one or two songs with its “Greatest Gainer” designation. One song is highlighted for the biggest increase in digital sales, the other for the largest gain in radio airplay. During some slow weeks where no song gains much, one of the prizes might not be rewarded; very occasionally, a single, fast-rising song wins both prizes. On this week’s Hot 100, we have a double-winner: newcomer Jeremih’s R&B boudoir jam “Birthday Sex.” (Which is about…well, why don’t you guess?) Billboard notes that it’s rare for a song below the Top 10 to pull this double prize off. The song leaps 10 notches to No. 13 and sees the biggest gain in both radio spins (up 12 million “audience impressions,” in Broadcast Data parlance) and digital sales (up about 11,000 downloads). It’s the second week in a row “Birthday Sex” has won the airplay designation and, more pertinent for our discussion here, its first winning the sales prize. At five weeks old, “Birthday Sex” has spent its entire chart career in the post-99-cents era. Even more interestingly, Island Def Jam/Universal launched the song at 99 cents and kept it there, not at the new $1.29 level more prevalent for hits. (About two-thirds of iTunes’ current 100 best-selling songs are at the higher level.) Let’s compare that with another flash-in-the-pan hit from the tail end of the previous iTunes era: Asher Roth’s “I Love College,” which was a fast riser in March and for one week also won the Greatest Gainer / Digital Sales prize. “College”–released by another Universal family label, Motown–never made it into the Top 10 (thank heavens). It peaked at No. 12, one space above where “Birthday Sex” is this week. When “College” won Greatest Gainer, it was four weeks old, just one week younger than “Birthday” is this week. This is as close to a controlled experiment as you get in chart analysis: two debut singles, priced the same, each equally old when it peaked, released by the same label group, both released ahead of their respective albums (so there’s no album-vs.-single sales competition to muddy the waters), and both peaking in the Hot 100’s mid-teens. (Jeremih’s hit may go higher next week, but that’s immaterial for our purposes.) The fact that the two songs are also lyrically a bit lewd and appeal to a certain subset of snickering teenagers probably doesn’t hurt either. The main difference is that, for Jeremih, a 99-cent price should be a big chart advantage against a field of mostly more expensive singles. When Roth peaked, everything was at that price. Is the lower price helping Jeremih? The short answer is, not much. That might be good news for proponents of the higher price point–it suggests a lower price doesn’t provide an outsized chart advantage. Than again, it might be bad news for the labels, if it means the whole field of hit songs has been weakened by the price change. The most obvious factor to check is chart position. In this, its Greatest Gainer week, the No. 13–ranked “Birthday” is higher on the chart than “College” was the week it earned Greatest Gainer (No. 17). Still, four notches isn’t much, and it can be mostly explained away by airplay; Roth’s hit never seriously caught on at radio, whereas Jeremih’s is already a Top 10 hit at R&B/Hip-Hop radio. If anything, with all that airplay, a strong-selling hit like “Birthday Sex” should probably rank higher by now. To really judge these two songs’ performance, you have to go beneath chart positions and look at the raw data. The week Roth’s “College” reached its ultimate peak of No. 12, it sold nearly 110,000 downloads. This week, when Jeremih reaches a nearly identical No. 13, “Birthday” only shifts 57,000. When it won Greatest Gainer, “College” had shifted a lifetime total of 453,000 downloads; as of this week, GG-winner “Birthday” has moved only 150,000 cumulatively. Those are pretty staggering differences. If “Birthday” were priced at the new $1.29 level, you’d immediately leap to the conclusion that the higher price damaged its sales potential. But remember, it’s at 99 cents. Why would a hit of roughly equal magnitude to its earlier labelmate sell so much less at the same price point? And why would it so easily win the Gainer prize even while selling so moderately? I’ll throw in one more data point to try to answer that last question: total digital sales of everything. I only have figures for the top 200 bestsellers for each week, but in mid-March when Roth earned the Gainer prize, the 200 top digital sellers moved a total of 5.26 million copies; this week, they move a total of 4.57 million. That’s a 13% difference. (And if anything, sales should have been better during the most recent tracking week, which included Mother’s Day; gift-giving holidays tend to boost overall music sales.) Simply put, digital sales are just weaker now overall than they were two months ago, so “Birthday Sex” is swimming in a smaller pond. Yes, a 99-cent price point is helping Jeremih against his $1.29 peers. But the sales totals both for his hit and the hits surrounding him suggest consumers are adjusting to the new reality and visiting iTunes (and its competitors, like Amazon, which also raised song prices) less frequently. Obviously, Roth vs. Jeremih is still not a perfect A-to-B comparison. Beyond their youth appeal, the audiences for the two songs are pretty different; “Birthday” clearly appeals to the grown-n-sexy crowd in a way Asher Roth wouldn’t. The chart competition in March, when Roth was on the rise, could have been more heated than it is now (it kind of feels that way, as we head into a summer season devoid of serious booming-Jeep jams). Finally, since March, more people have lost their jobs as the recession has deepened. All sorts of vagaries go into why a song becomes a hit and peaks where and when it does, and why people decide they have the disposable income to buy that hit. Nonetheless, I don’t think these vagaries can entirely explain away how a hit from two months ago sold two to three times as much as a similar-sized hit right now. I’ve been saying here for a while now that it’ll take months for us to really judge the full effects of variable iTunes pricing. But early signs like this ominously suggest that a chunk of consumers are breaking the for-pay habit when it comes to acquiring hit singles. And I’m still betting that a label is eventually going to get desperate enough to score a hit with a priority act and try to lap the field by pricing their single at 69 cents. If overall sales get low enough, just watch.Here’s a rundown of the rest of this week’s charts: • Drat! I was almost right when I predicted, two weeks ago, that an American Idol appearance would lift Jamie Foxx to the Hot 100’s penthouse with “Blame It” (the closest thing to a summer-Jeep anthem we have, even though its release dates back to December). But last week, Foxx peaked at No. 2, as a sales boost brought him to 105,000 downloads; this week, he’s back down to No. 3, while the damned Peas maintain their lock at No. 1 with “Boom Boom Pow.” “Blame It” remains the nation’s most-played radio hit–but what good does that do us now? “Boom,” on top of the Hot 100 for their sixth week, will likely remain there for a seventh. Will no one rid me of these meddlesome Peas? Right now, about the best hope for somebody evicting “Boom” is the song it evicted a month and a half ago, Lady GaGa’s “Poker Face,” which drifts back up to No. 2 and just keeps spinning and selling (No. 2 at radio and in digital sales). Alas. • Speaking of Idol boosts, Chris Daughtry’s prodigal-son return to the show last week worked wonders for his self-titled band’s new single. “No Surprise” debuts at No. 15, thanks to first-week download sales of 104,000. That’s not only his best Hot 100 debut. It’s also–follow me here–the second-best debut by a former Idol finalist after his/her debut album. That might sound like a hair-splitting data point. But as we’ve discussed here before, debut singles and albums from the Idols are always outliers, thanks to the promotional boost competing on the show provides; a much better indicator of the act’s career is seeing how they do when they come back a year or two later. The top-ranked returning Idol is, natch, Kelly Clarkson, who debuted all the way up at No. 8 in 2007 with “Never Again,” the leadoff single from her ill-fated third album My December. Daughtry’s second-place ranking on this rareified list of returning Idols might be short-lived. Next week, we’ll probably see a fat debut by Season 6 winner Jordin Sparks, who performed her Ryan Tedder-penned new single “Battlefield” on the show this week and is already highly ranked at iTunes. • You can’t tell by looking at the Modern Rock Top 10 below, but it’s a pretty good week for woman-fronted acts on that chart. One of the biggest airplay gains goes to the No. 18–ranked “Zero” from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. It’s their third-ever single on this chart and third Top 20 hit; each of their albums has produced exactly one Modern Rock hit, including 2004’s “Maps” (No. 9) and 2006’s “Gold Lion” (No. 14). Meanwhile, all the way at the bottom of the list, the week’s only debut is by the Emily Haines–fronted Canadian new-wave revivalists Metric, who make their first-ever chart appearance at No. 40 with “Help, I’m Alive.”Top 10s Last week’s position and total weeks charted in parentheses (Digital Songs chart includes total downloads/percentage change in parentheses):Hot 100 1. The Black Eyed Peas, “Boom Boom Pow” (LW No. 1, 9 weeks) 2. Lady GaGa, “Poker Face” (LW No. 3, 21 weeks) 3. Jamie Foxx feat. T-Pain, “Blame It” (LW No. 4, 17 weeks) 4. Kid Cudi, “Day ‘N’ Nite” (LW No. 4, 17 weeks) 5. Beyoncé, “Halo” (LW No. 8, 16 weeks) 6. Flo Rida feat. Wynter, “Sugar” (LW No. 5, 8 weeks) 7. Soulja Boy feat. Sammie, “Kiss Me Thru the Phone” (LW No. 5, 20 weeks) 8. 3OH!3, “Don’t Trust Me” (LW No. 9, 22 weeks) 9. Flo Rida, “Right Round” (LW No. 6, 15 weeks) 10. Miley Cyrus, “The Climb” (LW No. 11, 10 weeks)Hot Digital Songs 1. The Black Eyed Peas, “Boom Boom Pow” (LW No. 1, 206,000 downloads) 2. Lady GaGa, “Poker Face” (LW No. 2, 113,000 downloads) 3. 3OH!3, “Don’t Trust Me” (LW No. 5, 113,000 downloads) 4. Jamie Foxx feat. T-Pain, “Blame It” (LW No. 4, XXX,000 downloads) 5. Kid Cudi, “Day ‘N’ Nite” (LW No. 6, 106,000 downloads) 6. Flo Rida feat. Wynter, “Sugar ” (LW No. 3, 104,000 downloads) 7. Daughtry, “No Surprises” (CHART DEBUT, 104,000 downloads) 8. Beyoncé, “Halo” (LW No. 8, 88,000 downloads) 9. Eminem feat. Dr. Dre, “Old Time’s Sake” (CHART DEBUT, 88,000 downloads) 10. Miley Cyrus, “The Climb” (LW No. 7, 88,000 downloads)Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs 1. Jamie Foxx feat. T-Pain, “Blame It” (LW No. 1, 22 weeks) 2. Jeremih, “Birthday Sex” (LW No. 7, 10 weeks) 3. Soulja Boy, “Turn My Swag On,” (LW No. 3, 17 weeks) 4. Pleasure P, “Boyfriend #2” (LW No. 2, 15 weeks) 5. Kid Cudi, “Day ‘N’ Nite” (LW No. 9, 12 weeks) 6. Jennifer Hudson, “If This Isn’t Love” (LW No. 5, 26 weeks) 7. Keri Hilson feat. Kanye West and Ne-Yo, “Knock Me Down” (LW No. 11, 8 weeks) 8. The-Dream, “Rockin’ That Thang” (LW No. 4, 23 weeks) 9. Ciara feat. Young Jeezy, “Never Ever” (LW No. 10, 16 weeks) 10. Keri Hilson feat. Lil Wayne, “Turnin’ Me On” (LW No. 6, 25 weeks)Hot Country Songs 1. Sugarland, “It Happens” (LW No. 3, 13 weeks) 2. Carrie Underwood feat. Randy Travis, “I Told You So” (LW No. 2, 17 weeks) 3. Jason Aldean, “She’s Country” (LW No. 1, 25 weeks) 4. Brad Paisley, “Then” (LW No. 6, 8 weeks) 5. Keith Urban, “Kiss a Girl” (LW No. 7, 9 weeks) 6. Kenny Chesney, “Out Last Night” (LW No. 9, 7 weeks) 7. Montgomery Gentry, “One in Every Crowd” (LW No. 8, 16 weeks) 8. Rascal Flatts, “Here Comes Goodbye” (LW No. 5, 16 weeks) 9. Rodney Atkins, “It’s America” (LW No. 4, 26 weeks) 10. Dierks Bentley, “Sideways” (LW No. 10, 11 weeks)Hot Modern Rock Tracks 1. Green Day, “Know Your Enemy” (LW No. 1, 4 weeks) 2. Kings of Leon, “Use Somebody” (LW No. 2, 17 weeks) 3. 311, “Hey You” (LW No. 3, 5 weeks) 4. Rise Against, “Audience of One” (LW No. 5, 19 weeks) 5. Silversun Pickups, “Panic Switch” (LW No. 7, 9 weeks) 6. Anberlin, “Feel Good Drag” (LW No. 4, 32 weeks) 7. Seether, “Careless Whisper” (LW No. 6, 11 weeks) 8. Cage the Elephant, “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked” (LW No. 10, 8 weeks) 9. Incubus, “Black Heart Inertia” (LW No. 9, 6 weeks) 10. Papa Roach, “Lifeline” (LW No. 8, 17 weeks)

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